Defending Open Space and Growth Control Policies

Santa Cruz Urban Services Boundary (Greenbelt lands in yellow)

In a recent Santa Cruz Sentinel Guest Commentary, land use lawyer Jenifer Levini mistakenly described County and City growth control and Greenbelt preservation regulations as “a new theory to protect the environment from people and all our harmful by products,” claiming that planners believed that “this would solve problems like pollution causing climate change, water use, fire safety and housing affordability.”

    Her poorly conceived misinformation piece dismissed the work of the people of Santa Cruz over the past four decades to protect and preserve open space, natural resources and agricultural lands from expanding urban development. The City’s Measure O and the County’s Growth Control Ordinance did not address climate change (largely unrecognized at the time), water use, fire safety and housing affordability. Instead, these measures identified lands “worthy of preservation for their special scenic, aesthetic, environmental, and economic benefits to the citizens of Santa Cruz City and County.

    The City’s 2,000-acre open space greenbelt system originated in 1979 with the passage of Measure O. A Greenbelt Master Plan Feasibility Study was adopted in 1994 in response to General Plan policies calling for a publicly owned greenbelt around the city. The preservation and use of greenbelt and open space areas is guided by the City’s General Plan and Parks Master Plan.

    The County General Plan, Local Coastal Program Land Use Plan, and Chapter 17.01 of County Code (Growth Management) all require the County to “preserve a distinction between urban and rural areas, to encourage the location of new development in urban areas, and to protect agricultural land and natural resources in rural areas. These policies are supported by the establishment of a rural services line (RSL) and an urban services line (USL) to define areas which are or have the potential to be urban and areas which are and should remain rural.”

    Despite lawyer Levini’s unsupported claims, opening up greenbelts, open space and farmland to urban growth would not solve our multiple existing problems caused by urban development. The human caused problems of pollution, water shortage, forest fires and unaffordable housing cannot be blamed on preservation of open space, farmland and greenbelts. These problems have increased due to excessive growth and development, not by its absence. Santa Cruz is not running out of drinkable water, it is demanding too much from a finite supply. Commuting to work is not worsened by greenbelts, but by too many people traveling too far to work as a result of unaffordable housing costs and low salaries.

    County and City Open Space and Natural Areas are not empty lots waiting to be slathered with asphalt and cement and studded with houses, ADUs and multi-story tower blocks. They are essential habitat for myriad wildlife and plant species that have nowhere else to live. They are the living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms for deer, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, hawks, eagles, Great blue herons, possums, raccoons dusky-footed wood rats, pollinators and pollinatees, and all the unseen life in the living soil. All of this thriving biodiversity is lost when these open spaces are converted to human occupation.

    Preservation of open space and natural areas reduces local greenhouse gas production and provides natural carbon sinks that reduce atmospheric CO2. Restricting human infrastructure in natural areas reduces a source of forest fires in the urban/forest interface. Preservation of agricultural lands provides thousands of acres for local food production that does not require transportation from distant sources.

    There is plenty of space available within the existing urban services line for more housing. As we walk around our neighborhoods, we see numerous infill housing projects under construction, and city councils and the Board of Supervisors are busily amending regulations to streamline the permitting process for new housing.

    County and city regulations have succeeded over the past 40 years in protecting open space, farm land, natural resources and wildlife habitat. We must continue to maintain and vigorously defend open space and growth control policies.

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